Gardens: Woodland Garden of Larachmor

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AS you approach the village of Arisaig, after a beautiful drive north west from Fort William, made less exhausting by the newly upgraded road, a spectacular garden becomes visible through a mesh of fallen elms and brambles.

Hidden from the world, and known only by locals, Larachmhor has been carefully tended to by volunteers from the Royal Botanical Gardens Edinburgh for the past 51 years, but remains as obscure as its creator – the flamboyant and mysterious Mr Holms.

Larachmhor is spread out across a rocky hillside, and comprises 28 acres of rare plants, including camellias, primulas, magnolias and Himalayan poppies, but is dominated by rhododendrons, which add remarkable colour to the garden as they begin to flower in spring.

Though it’s winter when I visit, the rhododendrons are no less beautiful. Those which grow on the damp granite outcrop near the ruins of Holms’ unfinished house have deep mahogany bark, the texture of a sweet potato skin.

It’s rumoured that Holms hoped to collect every species of rhododendron in the UK, and as I explore the garden I can’t help but feel that had he not been stalled by tragedy he would have succeeded. More than 200 different species are still scattered across Larachmhor, and some have now grown to astonishing heights.

Born in Paisley in 1866, John Augustus Holms prospered as a Glasgow stockbroker, becoming a millionaire by 35. Like many of his era, he collected antiques and furniture, but he was also a prolific horticulturalist. He obtained Larachmhor after spending eight years searching the west coast of Scotland for a suitable place to plant the many specimens which he considered unsuitable for his first estate in Renfrewshire.

All gardeners know the extent to which the pastime can be infectious, and even addictive, but Alan Bennell of the Royal Botanical Gardens Edinburgh has rightly coined the term “maniacal rhodoholic” to describe the extent of John Holms’ obsession with the plants. He went on numerous expeditions abroad to gather them, and noted each variety in a collection of notebooks.

The warmth and humidity offered by the Gulf Stream made Larachmhor the perfect location to nurture his discoveries, while the site’s proximity to Arisaig train station appealed to Holms, because it allowed him to bring them to the garden in suitably vast quantities. In today’s money some of his purchases exceeded £10,000.

Records obtained by the Royal Botanical Gardens Edinburgh suggest that Holms was involved in the naming and introduction of at least one rhododendron hybrid. The plant’s name, R Antigone, comes from Greek mythology, and may have been the name Holms gave to one of his horses.

Given these legendary gardening exploits it’s surprising that so few details of Holms’ life have passed into history; yet the hearsay which feeds into his legend is remarkable. Whether holding fancy dress parties where he insisted his guests dress as dairy maids and shepherds, or loaning carpets to the monarchy for George V’s coronation, Holms brought inimitable theatre and passion to all areas of his life, which particularly showed in his exploits when gardening.

Many of us know the pride we feel as we watch something new take unexpectedly well to the soil, but according to Shauna Hay of the Royal Botanical Gardens Edinburgh, Holms took this to another level when his rare Rhododendron Sinogrande blossomed.

“It’s rumoured that Holms was so proud to have the first one to flower in cultivation that he cut off a truss, took a train to Edinburgh and had it bagpiped along Princes Street,” Shauna says. “When he showed it off to the Regius Keeper of the Botanic Garden, a minor war of words broke out!”

The ambition of Holms’ garden at Larachmhor, with its numerous species, many of which are difficult to recognise as common garden plants, is telling, more generally, of his attitude to life.

James Grieve, the clerk of works given the unenviable task of building his house at Formakin, once noted in a letter to the architect Robert Lorimer: “Mr Holms is not easily beaten”. Lorimer, however, knew this well. He had already been tasked with making monkeys the theme of the estate.

Despite antics which are rightly the subject of folklore, Holms was to some extent the victim of his eccentricities, too. As at Formakin, where priceless pieces of art reputedly hung on bare walls, Larachmhor fell into ruin, because Holms threw himself into all projects, usually in spite of the financial consequences.

Although a wealthy man, his significant resources were weakened by the First World War, while a betrayal by his business partner and the Wall Street Crash effectively reduced him to poverty.

Holms was already 62 when he began work at Larachmhor; his house was abandoned before completion as he disappeared into obscurity, dying in 1938. His gardener, John Brennan, stayed on at the garden, unpaid, where he tended to the plants for the next 20 years.

Alison Stewart, Local Development Officer at the Arisaig Community Trust, has heard stories of how the contents of Larachmhor were catalogued, and even sold off, plant-by-plant, in hope of repaying Holms’ debtors. Yet despite the inherent tragedy of the story, there is nothing sad about Larachmhor today.

“The garden is much loved locally,” Alison says. “It is an inspiring and magical place with a wonderfully calming atmosphere.

“On a wild and windy day it provides shelter and peace; the wind can be raging above, but under the tree canopy you can feel as though you are in a different world altogether.”

The question of quite what John Holms envisaged when he began work on Larachmhor is to some extent bewildering, and probably unknown even to him, but what seems plain is his determination to leave a mark on the world in some way. He would have felt honoured by the Royal Botanical Gardens Edinburgh’s involvement in his garden, but also with the perfect balance they have struck between performing necessary maintenance, while allowing a level of natural chaos to prevail.

“I think some visitors arrive expecting to find a manicured, National Trust type garden,” Alison says. “But Larachmhor’s true beauty lies in its wild heart; too much taming would deprive it of its character.”

• The Wild Woodland Garden of Larachmhor freely welcomes visitors in every season in daylight hours.